Kinship and descent are each notions that have been of particular preoccupation to social anthropologists, as much due to their importance as because of the difficulties they present. It is worthy to note their close link, stemming from a common social and biological character (only the former being necessary).
In particular, kinship refers to social relationships that usually coincide with biological ones. This is the case with the two forms of real kinship: consanguinity and affinity. Pseudokinship or fictitious kinship takes place when the social relationships simulate the ones arising through real kinship (consanguinity or affinity) but without any biological relationship. For example, in many societies, children who are breast-fed by the same mother are considered siblings. We can view ritual kinship as a special form of fictitious kinship, which necessitates a ritual for its creation, rituals such as godparenthood, adoption, or fraternization.
The term descent denotes the relationship that bonds the child to its mother or father, through which the elements that constitute the main characteristics of their status are transmitted. These include name, surname, heritage, and so on. Descent rules determine mainly membership to the parents’ kinship groups; in other words, descent is more of a social convention than a biological relationship. Consanguinity may exist, but it is in no way a necessary requirement. For instance, we consider adopted individuals (fictitious or ritual kinship) to have the same descent as the members of the group that adopted them. Just as it applies to individuals, descent can pertain to groups when group members biologically descend from a common ancestor or when they declare this to be the case, as slaves did by assuming membership of their owner’s kinship group.
Morgan and especially Pitt-Rivers and Radcliffe-Brown formulated a series of theories that reproduction by way of descent is the main principle of kinship. These theories are known as descent theories. A different view to these older theories is aired by Levi-Strauss’s alliance theory, which links the exchange of women and the interdiction of incest as the organizational principles of kinship.
In all societies, kinship and descent are two different notions: Kinship is a social relationship that may or may not coincide with a biological one; descent is a social convention that may require a biological relationship.
Descent systems determine the parents who transmit the main characteristics of individuals’ status. Parents also determine our membership in kinship groups: our mother’s, our father’s, or both.
We can define descent as bilateral or cognatic when the characteristics of our status are transmitted through both parents and we belong to both parents’ kinship groups. Most Western societies fall into this category, with children usually bearing their father’s surname. We define descent as unilineal or unilateral when the elements of an individual’s status are transmitted through only one parent and the individual belongs to only one parent’s kinship group.
When the elements of an individual’s status are transmitted through men, in particular the father, the descent is termed patrilineal or agnatic. In these cases, individuals belong to the groups constituted by their fathers’ kin without overlooking their consanguinity links with their mothers. The Nuer in Sudan, as well as the ancient Romans, have kinship groups of typical patrilineal or agnatic descent.
Correspondingly, when the elements of status have been transmitted by women, by mothers in particular, the descent is called matrilineal or uterine. This descent was common among the Iroquois Native Americans, and it still happens in the Hopi tribe. In many matrilineal or uterine descent societies, the mother’s brother has the primary role in the kinship group, corresponding to the father’s role in cases of patrilineal or agnatic descent. In the Trobriands in Melanesia, the son belongs to his mother’s kinship group in which her brother is also included; following the son’s marriage, the son and his wife live with the said brother.
Some societies have an even more complicated descent system, combining matrilineal and patrilineal descent but with only one of them being commonly accepted. This system is termed double descent or bilineal descent, not to be confused with bilateral or cognatic descent, where descent is equally determined by both parents’ sides.
In the Ashanti in Ghana, children inherit their fathers’ “spirit” as a characteristic of their status, but they belong to their mothers’ kinship groups, with whom they cohabit. A man and a woman who are distant patrilateral relatives are allowed to marry when it becomes impossible for them to name their common patrilateral ancestor, usually after four or five generations. Marriage is, however, strictly forbidden for all matrilateral relatives belonging to the mother’s wider kinship group. Conversely, in the Yako in Nigeria, children belong to and live with the patrilateral kinship group. This patrilateral group is strictly exogamic; their matrilateral group is much less so. Here we have two unilineal descents juxtaposed.
Extending our discussion of kinship and descent, a kinship group (either lineage or clan) may be of matrilineal, patrilineal, or double descent. Lineage is the wider group of individuals beyond the family who are interconnected through consanguineal kinship and who acknowledge a common ancestor. Clan is the even wider social group in which members acknowledge a common ancestry and whose relationships are ruled by solidarity. Whether the group is of matrilineal, patrilineal, or double descent depends on whether its members claim a common ancestor (who may be an existing or mythical person) and whether their characteristics are determined through the mother, the father, or both. These kinship groups are respectively known as matrilineal, patrilineal, or double descent groups.
The term descent groups is thus limited to unilineal or double descent groups. In the case of cognatic descent, there is no proper descent group, as neither patrilateral nor matrilateral relatives constitute a descent group because they both simultaneously belong to two kinship groups. Descent groups usually appear organized in such a way that enables them to make political, religious, or social decisions affecting their members. We call these corporate descent groups.
Descent and Residence
Because descent systems determine the kinship group to which individuals belong and with whom they usually cohabit, descent also appears related to the location of residence of both individuals and groups. When descent and locality appear parallel, that is, when patrilineal descent goes together with patrilocality or virilocality (residence with patrilateral relatives) and matrilineal descent goes together with matrilocality or uxorilocality (residence with matrilateral relatives), the descent system is described as harmonic. For instance, the patrilineal Nuer are patrilocal and the matrilineal Hopi, matrilocal.
There are cases, however, where descent and locality are opposed, as system we then describe as disharmonie More specifically, a disharmonic system can combine either patrilineal descent with matrilocality or matrilineal descent with patrilocality. In Congo, for example, the husband lives in the same village as his father and sons (patrilocal residence) but belongs and inherits goods from his matrilineal descent group (matrilineal descent).
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- Lévi-Strauss, C. (1949). Les structures élémentaires de la parenté. Paris: PUF.